Hungry History

The Natural High of Intoxicating Foods

By Stephanie Butler

Intoxicating FoodsHave you ever been in search of, shall we say, a natural high? Are you looking for some extra excitement in your grilled fish dinner? Want more out of your spice rack? This week, we’re looking at some very different foods that share a common trait. These intoxicating foods can make you hear voices, see shadows, and sometimes act downright crazy. Some have a long history of ingestion by humans for their hallucinogenic properties, while others were discovered accidentally in recent years.

At first glance, it’s not hard to see why chili peppers are one of our intoxicating foods. Aficionados scarf up even the hottest chilis, regardless of the painful side effects. But truly hot chilis can also have mildly hallucinogenic effects. The Mayans used them as stimulants in ancient Mexico, and humans have enjoyed their titillating effects for over 8,000 years. Modern day chili eaters have reported seeing objects that aren’t in the room and losing feeling in limbs, among other mind-numbing effects.

Of all the intoxicating foods, nutmeg is probably the most innocuous. No one would think that that small jar on the spice shelf holds anything more than a nice addition to pumpkin pie. But nutmeg contains the compound myristricin, a powerful narcotic, which causes hallucinations in humans when taken in large doses. The key word, of course is “large”: it takes the equivalent of two whole seeds to produce any effect at all. And the body can’t metabolize the nutmeg compound very efficiently, which means that any high that results from ingesting the spice doesn’t begin until six or so hours after it’s been eaten. Additionally, the hallucinogenic effects of nutmeg might be noticeable, but they aren’t enjoyable: it involves vomiting, nausea and dry mouth. Users have even compared it to having a bad bout of flu.

A nice piece of grilled fish doesn’t look like a place for an intoxicating food, but a species of sea bream native to the Mediterranean Sea has a long history of bewitching those who dine on it. The Salema porgy was even used as a drug during Roman times. Scientists don’t think the fish is naturally hallucinogenic, but think the fish ingests a type of plankton or other microorganism that gives it hallucinogenic properties. Aficionados claim the head of the fish is the most potent part. The fish was in headlines recently after two separate cases in Europe when men fell sick within minutes of eating it. Both reported seeing visions, hearing things, and terrifying nightmares.

Categories: Ancient History, Maya